Don’t join Toastmasters? Seriously?

While skimming through my Twitter feed the other day, a Tweet caught my eye. It contained the link to a post on Entrepreneur by Jonathan Li entitled 10 Mistakes Successful Speakers Never Make Again. I was intrigued. I thought, I make mistakes; I should read it. So I did.

tm-logoMost of what I read in the post—which was published in May 2015 but is still being shared—I expected to find. What I did not expect was the recommendation not to join Toastmasters.

I did a double-take. For a moment, I thought there must be a typo, but no, I read it correctly. Here is the entirety of what Li wrote in defence of his recommendation:

Successful speakers don’t go to Toastmasters, because the organization’s forced-to-clap environment is unrealistic. Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.

Not only is this the flimsiest of rationales, it’s just plain wrong. Let’s deconstruct Li’s argument.

1.  The definition of a “successful” speaker is subjective. For some, being a successful speaker could be getting paid to speak or giving a TED Talk. For others, success might be something as simple as being able to give a toast at a wedding without falling apart. The vast majority of Toastmasters have no intention of becoming professional speakers; they just want to become more comfortable in front of an audience. Speaking at Toastmasters has helped many people achieve this level of “success”.

2.  Li states that successful speakers “[don’t feel] terrified before speaking in front of groups”. One of the benefits of Toastmasters is that it helps people be more at ease when speaking in front of others. Yes, a Toastmasters audience is supportive, but people have to start somewhere. Telling people that they should “choose to turn their nervousness into excitement” and “focus on transforming lives and making a big impact” is all well and good, but you need to do that in front of a real audience. A Toastmasters meeting is one of the places where you can get this opportunity.

3.  Toastmasters has a “forced-to-clap” environment that is unrealistic. Yes, clapping is a big part of Toastmasters and even I find it a bit much at times. But for some, the applause is important (see Point 1 above) and, in any event, it is certainly not a reason not to join.

4.  “Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback.” Well, at Toastmasters, people speak in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. In fact, in my experience, Toastmasters provide more constructive feedback than you get in many corporate settings. Sure, the feedback is sometimes heavier on the positive side than on suggestions for improvement, but depending on the experience of the speaker, that is not a bad thing. Experienced speakers should be given more constructive criticism than novice speakers. You want to encourage people, not discourage them.

5.  “The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.” Fine, but what is a “realistic” environment? Nowhere in his post does Li offer an example of a “realistic” environment where people should speak. Presumably, he means anywhere but Toastmasters. However, every speaking situation is different; every speaking situation offers different opportunities for growth. I am a firm believer that if people want to hone their speaking skills, they should definitely speak in front of non-Toastmaster audiences. No issue there. But why does that preclude them from speaking at Toastmasters as well? It should not be an either / or proposition.

6.  Li concludes his post by stating, correctly, that no matter how we may be as speakers, we need to keep improving. He then encourages readers to “learn from other successful speakers, attend seminars, and watch the best TED talks.” While I agree with his suggestions, there is a glaring omission. What about … practice speaking in front of people? That is the best way to become a better speaker. You could watch every TED Talk ever given, but until you go on stage yourself, you don’t really know what it’s like. Toastmasters is a place where you can get on stage.

This week I had phone call with my good friend and fellow speaker, Conor Neill. Conor is part of a close network of speaker-friends that I have here in Europe. We collaborate on projects, share ideas and refer work to each other. We look out for one another and constantly try to improve each other’s game.

During our discussion, Conor asked how I try out new material before using it with clients. One of the ways is Toastmasters, which I use as a laboratory where I can experiment. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t, but it is always a valuable learning experience. I tell people to think of, and use, Toastmasters as a place where they can stretch themselves; a place where they can try things that they wouldn’t risk doing in a “realistic” environment. Few places offer this kind of oratorical sandbox. I fail to see how taking advantage of such an opportunity is anathema to successful public speaking.

I have been a member of Toastmasters since mid-2007. I have given dozens of speeches there, spoken at Toastmasters conferences across Europe and won several speech contests at the highest level. Two years ago, I left a secure position as a lawyer at the World Health Organization to pursue a full-time career in public speaking.

I have worked with some of the largest, best known companies and organizations in the world. I have given a TEDx Talk to 700 people. In the past year, I have been paid to speak at events in Canada, the United States, Argentina, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland, and I already have bookings late into 2017.

Am I a successful speaker? I suppose it depends on your definition of success. However, to the extent that I have had any success, Toastmasters has made a positive contribution. It is not perfect and it should not be the only place you speak. But it is a great organization that can offer you a lot of benefits.

Don’t join Toastmasters? That’s just short-sighted, bad advice.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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47 Responses to Don’t join Toastmasters? Seriously?

  1. Justin G says:

    Hello John,

    I’m curious if my post from late last week was rejected? I spent a lot of time making sure to send a well thought out thank you for your info, and my plea for help as I try to get a motivational speaking career underway.

    It’s hard to get in touch with a successful, established speaker like yourself and I feel it would go a long way for me. Pointing me the right way as I chase my dream career is something I could not thank you enough for.

    Please let me know when you can. Thank you so much.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Justin. Thank you for your message and this follow up message. Your first message, which was indeed thoughtful, arrived at a busy moment for me. I was in Barcelona all last week teaching at the IESE EMBA Programme. I returned to Geneva to a busy two days and I fly to Moldova on Wednesday for work there. I didn’t want to dash off a quick response to your first message. I will get to it, but it will take a few days. I appreciate your valuing my opinion and also your patience. Cheers!

  2. Lauren says:

    I understand this post is a little dated now but I came across it in my search on toastmasters and whether I should join. I am someone who suffers with increased anxiety and panic when i have to speak in front of an audience. My past jobs have required me to organise meetings and speak in front of large crowds however every time i panic, my heart is beating a mile a minute and feel I will never get over this hurdle, i will never become comfortable with getting up and talking.

    Yesterday, i took the courage to attend one meeting (i really don’t know how i managed to get through the door) but i did. I found it to be so enlightening ( a little intimidating, but that was my own worries and anxieties coming through) and as much as i sat there with my heart in my mouth I honestly felt like this was the first step in the right direction. I don’t understand how giving people with severe Glossophophia (from my perspective) the platform to try and be better could ever be perceived as a negative concept. Now, i didn’t stand up in table topics, at this point I don’t know if I ever could but I am hopeful that in the future this will help me become more confident in my own ability to public speak.

    I have read many comments that the evaluations are to soft. I can understand this however, from someone who only sees her negative criticisms being in a safe & comfortable environment enables me to try harder, do better without feeling I am being judged. I will attend toastmasters next week and feel excited, nervous and grateful that i have somewhere I can try to face my fears.

    Thank you

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Lauren,

      Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful, vulnerable comment. Vulnerability is one of the greatest ways in which a speaker can build empathy with her audience. It is, counterintuitively, a sign of strength.

      I am glad that you went to Toastmasters and I wish you the best of success with your journey. Each of us is different and I don’t know you, but perhaps I can offer a few thoughts based on my years of experience evaluating thousands of speeches:

      1. Being nervous is completely natural. It means that you care enough that you want to do a good job.

      2. As nervous as you feel, the odds are good that most people will not notice or at least not notice the extent to which you are nervous. For example, nobody can hear your heart beating.

      3. Over the years, I have learned that people wouldn’t worry so much what others thought of them if they realized how seldom they do.

      4. Take things step by step. The goal is to be a bit better than the last time you spoke. With time, your level of comfort on the stage will increase. You will never lose the nerves entirely — you don’t want to — but you will learn how to harness that energy and channel it in the right direction.

      5. Every speech or presentation is about the audience. It’s not about your or your company or product or service. It’s about the audience. Once you start going into a speaking situation thinking, “How can I help the audience?” you will notice a big step forward in your speaking because you will no longer be focusing on yourself.

      I hope this is helpful and, once again, I wish you the best of success with your speaking.

      • Very good to see these posts. Thank you Lauren. Superb response–as always John. And good luck Lauren. And thank you John.

        To the above, may I humbly add, “I wish, I wish, & I wish yet again” that the science behind stage-fight, glossophobia, anxiety, triggered stress response, fight-fright-freeze response, etc. etc., were a more frequent part of the conversation. A scientifically informed and enlightened thought-process/discussion/conversation around stage fright is not yet ubiquitous enough.

        It is helpful, or at the very least, there is no harm is knowing what is actually going on in your body at these times. It is all about knowing why/how the unpleasant body sensations are generated.

        Over the years, I’ve compiled some resources to address this unnecessary shortcoming. Hope it helps you Lauren. Good Luck!
        And here are some pre-speech routines/rituals (positivity techniques) that have served me well over the years. Some of them are bound to work for you.
        Good Luck!

        • John Zimmer says:

          Thank you, Rashid, and thank you for your (always) generous sharing of tips and ideas to help others.

          There are some good resources in the material that Rashid has shared and I encourage readers to have a look.

    • Shruthi says:

      Hi Lauren,
      I happened to visit this blog. I can see your comment first. What you described about you and how you feel about speaking in front of large group is exact description of me. The first time attending meeting as guest always reminds me how nervous or intimidated I was. I always thought it’s only me who face such problem. Good to know that there are many people who face such challenges and trying to overcome it like me. Good luck and all the best. Toastmasters is the place that transforms your life for better.

  3. Katie Kallio says:

    Hi John,
    I commented on this post back in the summer of 2016 – thought I was in a time warp when I saw your post today!
    I agree wholeheartedly with your counters to Li’s position, particularly your last point on the “…glaring omission. What about …practice speaking in front of people?” Toastmasters offers just the place … a unique “oratorical sandbox” as you say to measure your audience reach.
    At the end of the day it comes down to what Saket K Rao commented on: You get out of it only what you put into it!
    Suspect that this does not require a degree in psychology or scientific measurement, and above all suggests one abandon Nihilist conclusions of Toastmasters as some hierarchical-dictatorship-organizational structure. The ideal of Toastmasters remains in the Strength, Practice and Courage of each Toastmaster Club member to Stand Up, Speak Up, Listen Up and at times Shut Up – least one Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water!
    Toastmasters has continue to help me grow and become a better speaker, leader and person (not perfect, but better). Thanks for the continued applause Toastmasters!
    Congratulations to you John and Manner of Speaking for continued success- awesome blog and recognition!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Katie! I think that most Toastmasters would share your views of the organization. Oh, it is far from perfect and with 350,000+ members you are inevitably going to get obnoxious, arrogant people at all levels. But they are a minority. I’ve had a positive experience with TM here in Europe.

      And yes, you can make what you want of the experience. Some want to focus on speaking; others on leadership activities like running a club or District. Nobody says you have to do everything. I continue to see TM as a laboratory where I can try things out before taking them into the “real world”.

      Thanks for the comments about the blog!

  4. Alex Maxwell Maxwell says:

    Toastmasters is a joke. It is nothing more than about self-importance and a bunch of people stroking their own ego. Nothing short of a dictatorship and has no desire to be part of a community.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Your criticism is too harsh and is unwarranted. Like any other large organization, Toastmasters has its problems and also its share of bad people. But to label it a dictatorship that has no desire to be part of a community is not only wrong, it is juvenile.

    • Oh dear me. : ). You may well have had an unpleasant experience, and/or even an unrealistic expectation of benefits. If you are open to considering a counterpoint, consider acknowledging this: I’ve seen many many people, from folks in their 20s, to others in their 60s, being transformed. And I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen courage, and kindness, and expectations of excellence, and generosity aplenty. I’ve seen this across many clubs, corporate and community, and over many years. A (Anais Nin) quote that has regularly crossed my mind, is “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
      More puzzling to me is that you experienced “dictatorship”. Leading volunteers is as hard as it gets, and that’s the only option (that I’m aware of) available in Toastasters.
      Wishing you the very best. And hoping that you rediscover the joy and exhilaration of public speaking and storytelling.

      • John Zimmer says:

        Great comment, Rashid.

      • That is a nice little generalized speech Rashid. I experienced dictatorship too. The problem with your argument is Toastmaster has scripts and entire booklets on closing the sale and member retention. Most Toastmasters are not going to complain because they are taught not to, and when they do like with the recent complaints about raising membership dues the President or some other leader will just sent a letter out like they did a year ago giving a tongue-lashing

    • I used to be a member of Toastmaster. I was bullied by a DTM. Toastmasters at least in AZ in just an awards mill with no attempt at real world applications

      • John Zimmer says:

        In an organization of almost 350,000 people it is in inevitable that you will encounter some people who are obnoxious, arrogant, bullying and worse. It would be naive to think otherwise. Fortunately, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people are decent.

        It do agree that TM can be fixated on awards and club growth and things like that, but you can avoid those kinds of things if you want to. As long as you are in a club with good people, you can make the experience what you want it to be for you.

  5. Thanks John.

    For readers here who’re curious about Toastmasters, you might like this 12-minute video that shows how their meetings work. It’s professionally-produced, and gives you a good idea about the meeting format – as well as how much clapping there is!

  6. saket11 says:

    Hey John,

    I think the line “Toastmasters provide more constructive feedback than you get in many corporate settings.” is very apt.

    When it comes down to constructive feedback, evaluations tend to be sugar coated. However on approaching my evaluator post evaluation sessions I have always been able to benefit from the feedback.

    According to me the most important aspect of Toastmasters is the “attitude” you have towards it. No matter what Toastmasters has to offer, at the end of the day it’s what we wish to take home.

    Thank you for writing this, really enjoyed reading it and totally agree with you.


    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you for the comment, Saket. You are right; at the end of the day, you get out of Toastmasters (and most things, for that matter) what you want to get out of it. Cheers!

  7. Alex Maxwell Maxwell says:

    toastmasters has some good qualities , but are shortly lost by others lessor ones . It seems to be a cross between Amway and a church . I wouldn’t advise one to join or not to join The governance structure of Toastmasters might be okay in some chapters but definitely was absent at ours

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. Yes, the quality of Toastmaster clubs can differ widely. And yes, it can have that Amway / church feel as you put it. But if people approach it with the right mindset, and use it as a laboratory or gym to strengthen their skills, it can be valuable. My concern was with the blanket statement that one should never join TM. If a person does not like a club, they can always try another one.

  8. Rich G says:

    I have been to two Toastmaster meetings as a guest. I enjoyed both meetings. At the second meeting I did my first table topic. I was so nervous my back muscles actually spasmed and hurt. So I am not sure if it is something I should pursue but I really appreciate your insights contained in this article.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Congratulations on getting up and speaking, Rich. You should definitely keep at it. It gets easier and easier, though the nerves never go away entirely. But that is all part of the deal. And do some stretching before for your back! Cheers!

  9. Salam John,

    I totally agree with your analysis of this “bad” advice of “Don’t join Toastmasters”.

    It is probably one of the best decisions I have ever taken, joining Toastmasters has been a live changing for me, personally more than professionally. As we are in the business of people every minute, every hour and every day of our lives, speaking clearly with confidence is a major skill to learn.

    I joined Toastmasters two years ago, have given 10s of speeches in different clubs in different cities, if there is one thing that I may understand why Jonathan Li advised against joining Toastmasters is that the evaluation part. Many evaluations are “Soft” which does not help speakers to improve. Having said that Jonathan Li could have had a better advice than that.

    Toastmasters rocks!!

  10. Rashid says:

    Toastmasters is an excellent organization. Its very success, its vast reach, and its longevity put an end to any serious opposing argument.

    In wannabe-entrepreneurial flights of imagination, I have speculated that if I could convert the goodwill, and growth that is so normal in Toastmasters, into a tonic or an ointment, and sell it to corporations, I would cease to have financial worries : ). There is something special going on in Toastmasters.

    I remember an instance when a first time guest opted to answer a Table Topics question, and truly shared her story, a thought crossed my mind; “If this same person were to join my team at work, it would probably be a year before I would get to know her story so well”. There is something special going on in Toastmasters.

    As far as opportunity for practice (accompanied with immediate feedback) goes, I have no doubt that Mr. Jonathan Li would benefit a lot from evaluations from some of us.


  11. Katie Kallio says:

    Hi John,

    Couldn’t agree more as a Toastmaster and all who have been helped by Toastmasters!

    I attended Toastmaster District 60 Fall Conference “Light the Fire Within” in Toronto this weekend.

    The keynote speaker was Darren LaCroix who leveraged his Toastmasters 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking win into Stage Time University and an awesome professional speaking career.

    As Darren LaCroix said Saturday – never turn down stage time, each time you put your hand up, stand up and speak up, you become better ( not perfect but better ). Thanks for the applause Toastmasters!

    Congratulations to you and Manner of Speaking for deserved spot in Top 50 Public Speaking Blogs by Feedspot!

    Katie Kallio

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Katie. LaCroix gives sound advice. And that’s what Toastmasters is: another place where you can get experience speaking. It’s not the only place – nor should it be – but it is a good place to practice. Thanks also for the congrats. Much appreciated.

  12. Conor Neill says:

    Great to see our conversation turning into a reflective blog post! (especially on one of the world’s top public speaking blogs according to feedspot!)

    As someone who has never joined Toastmasters I can see Jonathan Li’s point… it is true that many people that have worked their way through the toastmasters system end up with some characteristics in their delivery manner that I might call “over-acting”.

    The idea of viewing Toastmasters as a “laboratory” where you can “play” with speaking and try out things that you are not ready to risk in the “real world” is powerful. I think this attitude is fundamental to allowing Toastmasters to be a platform for having a bigger role as a speaker in your life 😉 The winner of the world championship of speaking follows toastmaster’s cultural rules of what is a great speech, which is not necessarily the same as corporate keynotes, sales convention workshops or TED talks!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Conor. I too am not a fan of the theatrical style that many Toastmasters adopt. Having said that, you can be theatrical at TM with your voice, gestures, etc. as a way of seeing how far you can push yourself. You might just discover that you have a much broader ranges than you thought. So, for example, if your level of enthusiasm when speaking is normally a 2 out of 10, at TM you can push yourself to try 8, 9 or 10. Not that you would necessarily go to that extreme in the “real” world. But if you realize that you can do 8,9 or 10, then when you are speaking outside of TM, you might just feel more comfortable going to 4 or 5 or 6 (as appropriate) and thus connect with your audience.

      But I agree. A TM speech is different from a corporate keynote which is different from a TED Talk. That’s why trying all these different kinds of speeches / presentations is like cross-training for your public speaking skills!

  13. Thanks for unpacking this, since “Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.” Is exactly what Toastmasters provide 🙂

  14. Mel Kelly says:

    Hi John,
    I agree fully with you.
    Also I find it a great place to practice my comedy routines before going to the comedy clubs.

  15. Rich Hopkins, 3rd place in the 2006 WCPS puts it best I believe. “Toastmasters is Ice Skating. Professional Speaking is Ice Hockey.”

  16. phyllis zimmer says:

    Excellent response to Johnathan Li comment on Toastmasters. Hope he gets to read it and rethinks his advice and even learns something new.

  17. I found Jonathan’s article very lightweight. It skims through 10 topics, but only devotes 3 or 4 sentences to each.

    I agree with your points, and for me this sentence hit the nail on the head: “Toastmasters… is not perfect and it should not be the only place you speak.”

    On the road to better speaking, Toastmasters is a great help. If you attend a lot, it can be a time-consuming way to improve, but it’s definitely worth including some Toastmasters experience (especially contests), along with other workshops and speaking gigs in your “speaking mix”. Their contests have quite a different feel from regular meetings, as the audience is bigger and more “realistic”, and there’s less clapping!

    (By the way, I just reviewed a Toastmasters video that gives advice on managing public-speaking fear. There’s a lot to learn from the clip, including 3 great strengths and 1 major flaw for an online video. See what you think.)

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Craig and thanks for the link. That’s quite the detailed analysis of a 3-minute video. Well done.

      • Thanks John. While writing the review, I wondered if I was crazy for such a short clip! But there’s just so much in it, as the speaker packs it full of gestures and facial expressions, as well as spoken and slide-based content of course.

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